Neue Nationalgalerie – a two-sided icon

by Ruby Goss

The Neue Nationalgalerie designed by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, located in Berlin’s Kulturforum was opened in 1968. The building was built to house the impressive 20th Century art collection. Here, the formal aspects of the building will be discussed as well as the degree of its success as an Art Gallery space.

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The building is highly geometric, built primarily from glass and steel. Standing on its own on a concrete platform, it is elevated from street level, a sort of island separate from the desolate Kulturforum drive. These steps up to the Gallery seem to mimic the traditional notions of cultural buildings and museums, with the act of ascension leading us up into some form of higher enlightenment and rather contrast the more modern aspects of the site. The heavy, rectangular roof, supported by a single pillar on each side, seemingly floats above the ground level of the building, whose walls are entirely transparent glass. The level below exhibits part of the permanent collection and contains the gallery’s services and offices. Surrounding the building is a sculpture garden, which can be seen from the ground level of the building.

The transparency of the building, which gives the passer by a direct view into the exhibitions on ground level, is an unusual feature for a revenue-oriented cultural institution. It is amusing, while viewing an exhibition on the first level, to see people circling on the outside, trying to see what they can of the exhibition without paying. For the visitor, however, a visit inside the gallery, at least in the upper level is a welcome change from the ‘white-cube’ gallery experience. The surroundings of the Gallery, including the sculpture garden, interplay with the works on display and interestingly confuses the barrier between indoor and outdoor space.

The most impressive space is clearly this upper level, making the descent into the lower level that houses the permanent collection, feel quite like a descent into a dark cellar. Although this underground setting was also chosen as a ‘safer’ place to keep the collection in, the contrast to the upper level is a little underwhelming. The successes of the naturally lit, open space upstairs are negated by the dull and claustrophobic area below that disrupts the continuity of the building, making the spaces feel very different from each other. It seems strange that an effort was made to have the work safely stored underground, however not enough space was drafted into the large building to assure the housing and permanent display of the entire collection.

While aesthetically impressive, showing van der Rohe’s modernist flair, the building does perhaps suffer the same faults as Niemeyer’s Brasilia whose grand, modern designs failed to provide for the realistic and daily needs of the people using the spaces.

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all images by René Georg Johansen

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